Originally published on the OGP blog on 16 August 2018
The global wave of political transitions over the last few years have challenged progress towards greater openness in OGP countries. Seven years after OGP launched, many civil society activists and reformers inside government find themselves now faced with obstacles to introducing open government reforms or conflicting priorities of new leaderships.
At the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Georgia, the fishbowl session on managing political transitions offered the opportunity to share a variety of experiences and learn about different strategies and tactics used to keep open government a priority in a variety of different contexts.
After starting interventions from the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Germany, Liberia, and the USA, participants from 12 other countries shared their experiences and solutions to maintaining open government as a priority during challenging times.
So, what preparatory measures can be taken to help maintain open government as a priority in OGP countries during and after shifts in political leadership?
Institutionalize the process in law and in practice
There are both legislative and practical ways to institutionalize the OGP process and broader openness agenda. Such efforts can ensure there is continuity across a political transition, so that it is not lost from one leadership to another.
In Kenya, transparency, participation and accountability are institutionalized through the constitution which means that there are mechanisms for enforcement and implementation. Nigerian advocates are also working towards institutionalizing OGP processes before their upcoming elections.
Where legislative options are not possible, it is common for the process to be institutionalized in practice. We heard from Pakistan, Malawi and Ukraine, that developing the Multistakeholder Forum has created a space to continue pushing for reform after transitions, just like in many other OGP participating countries.
Civil servants are also key in institutionalizing the process, regardless of the ruling party or which politicians come to power. It is important to make sure they are trained and see the incentive for themselves in engaging with OGP as it makes their jobs more efficient, easier and effective. In the Philippines for example, efforts were made prior to the elections to ensure that civil servant reformers were empowered to continue with the agenda after the change in government.
Refocus efforts on local government
Open government is often most effective at the local level where governments play a crucial role in delivering public services and engage more directly with citizens. The value of local-level reform is already recognized through the OGP Local Program (which has recently expanded).
Even outside this program, efforts can still be made to promote open government at the local level, as a way to maintain it as a political priority.
In some cases this is even more desirable, especially if local governments are more powerful than national governments. For example, the devolved nature of Nepalese governance, following the adoption of a new constitution, makes it more effective to engage devolved administrations to open up rather than only focusing on the national government.
In Ukraine, Cambodia, Germany, Philippines, Nigeria, and many other OGP countries, civil society has focused efforts on engaging with local or regional governments as this is where they believe there is a greater chance of impact. These efforts mean that in Ukraine (via the Transparent Cities project) and Germany (at the Länder level), local governments have started to ‘compete’ to be more open and transparent.
But competition among local governments need not always drive a push for openness. In Nigeria, the focus on openness at the state level has encouraged them to learn from one another and adopt best practices.
Learn from each other
OGP provides a forum for inspiration and learning, where ideas from one country or sector can motivate openness in another.
This can also happen within a country as well, such as in Nigeria where efforts are made to encourage learning across regions and states to push best practice. In Scotland, this learning aspect is also hugely important. Last year civil society, government and officials from across the UK came together in Edinburgh to discuss challenges and find solutions to continuing open government reform.
Encouraging learning across all actors - from politicians, civil society and civil servants - is hugely important to ensure that the open government agenda is sustained. That is also why OGP gatherings and Summits, like in Tbilisi, are amazing opportunities to become inspired by the work done in unexpected places and develop those ideas back home.
Engage with all political parties, not just governing parties
When talking about political transitions, we are talking more often than not about the change of government from one political party (or coalition) to another. Politicians need clear incentives to want to prioritize openness reforms. This can be done by showing how vehicles like OGP can help them fulfill their campaign promises, which are at the top of their mind as soon as they come in to office.
In Syria for example, despite the many challenges faced in the country, civil society groups are informing political actors from a variety of backgrounds about open government in preparation for future elections. Nigeria is also looking towards training political party campaign managers on open government so that it can be a part of multiple candidates’ campaigns.
Political leaders from all parts of the political spectrum need help in understanding how they can use the OGP process, rather than distance themselves. Often they feel it is the legacy of a previous administration, a certain political party, or philosophy. In Liberia, the new influx of politicians with no previous governing experience means that very few know about the OGP process. Civil society therefore has been meeting with the Speaker of the House and new legislators to explain open government and the action plan process.
Develop civic participation and new civil society coalitions
Sometimes it may be more effective to focus efforts back onto civil society and citizens to inform and build their capacity to be advocates for open government.
In Northern Ireland, the paralysis due to a lack of a sitting government has meant that civil society has focused on enhancing civic participation and in particular with young people. The process for developing the civil society’s Open Government Manifesto in the UK included travelling around the country to engage with a wide variety of participants. In Malawi, efforts have been made at the local level to empower citizens to demand improvements and greater openness. In the USA, civil society groups are building new and unexpected coalitions for open government following the delayed start of their fourth action plan.
Prepare for political transitions
Political transitions are inevitable. As such it is essential that reformers in government and civil society are ready for changes to ensure open government remains at the top of any political agenda.
Some political transitions may prove harder than others in finding ways to maintaining openness as a political priority. Yet as the discussion showed at the fishbowl session on managing political transitions, there is a variety of ways in which advocates for open government can keep going.
Whether it be by institutionalizing the process, focusing on local government, engaging with a variety of political actors, or developing new civil society coalitions, or learning from others, it is crucial that we are prepared for the political transitions that will inevitably happen.